Kwara Hijab Crisis and the Exigency of Religious Tolerance

Serious controversy over the use of the Islamic head covering for ladies, hijab, in some schools has lingered for almost three months in Kwara State. Last month, the state government had ordered the closure of the 10 schools involved following the resurgence of the disagreement over the use of hijab by Muslim students.

A committee was set up by the state government to look into the issue. The committee later announced that all public schools should respect the rights of Muslim students to wear their head coverings.

The government then directed the 10 schools to reopen but immediately withdrew the directive; citing security concerns after Christian leaders in the state rejected the government’s position on the use of hijab. It finally directed the schools to reopen but the crisis continued as rival groups clashed in some of the schools.

The high point was when a video that had gone viral showed Christians and Muslims engaging in violent confrontation on the issue. The violent clash broke out at Surulere Baptist School, Ilorin as mission schools shut down by the state government over hijab issue, resumed classes. At least, 20 persons were reportedly injured from the skirmish with motorists deserting the troubled area for hours. Police authorities had to disperse the crowd involved with teargas to restore order in the area.

Ever since the breakout, there have been calls for peace from concerned citizens and major stakeholders. Chairman of the Kwara State Council of Chiefs and Emir of Ilorin, Alhaji Ibrahim Sulu Gambari, had cautioned Muslims and Christians to avoid religious crises of any kind. The Emir of Ilorin appealed to adherents of Islam and Christianity, to continue to embrace peace and harmony in the state.

Bishop David Oyedepo, founder of the Living Faith Church, and an indigene of Kwara state, also waded into the matter recently. He advised Muslims to seek hijab-wearing schools for their children. Oyedepo gave the advice while reacting to the Hijab controversy during a midweek service on March 26, 2020:

”It is such a nasty development in Kwara State where Muslims are asking their students in our schools to wear Hijab, and the church said “no”.

“My advice is- leave the schools for the owners, find your schools. Men and women can wear hijab there. Stop putting your fingers in the eyes of others when they are not blind.”

Differences have always ruled the world. The world exists in opposites. It is structured along two worlds of right or wrong; black or white; truth or falsehood, etc. Every other thing meets on the fence. As human beings, differences have always informed how we view the world. While William Blake in his concept of contraries argues that they are essential for growth and help the world stay “relevant”, it has in fact been the bane of our existence as human beings.

Religion has been the center of several differences, alongside such human categories as race and ethnicity. It is indubitable that most people hide under the guise of religion or race to advance selfish interests. In the nineteenth century when Nigerians could easily claim that they were from the North, West or South, the intolerance was hidden under political and ethnic balaclava.

Religion is particular because of its very sensitive nature. Pundits define it as man’s effort to satisfy certain emotional needs by establishing and maintaining cordial relations between the super-sensible world and human beings. Hence it is intrinsic to life. Its intrinsic nature to life is so real that it permeates every facet of the human person. It then becomes very germane to tread with caution as one involves oneself in religious matters, either as a preacher, scholar and even as an adherent.

Religious issues call for much caution in a federation like Nigeria because of her diversity. This caution can only happen where there is tolerance among the various stakeholders in the two main religions. It is vital to note that religious intolerance is one of the most dangerous social maladies in the world today. It can deeply divide blood relatives, bosom friends, and business associates.

Hausa, Igbo, Yoruba are acknowledged as the three major ethnic groups in the country, while Islam and Christianity are the dominant religions. An acknowledgment of this reality and the need to balance the two is the reason why section 10 of the 1999 constitution state that Nigeria is a secular state. Accordingly, it states that “The Government of the Federation or of a State shall not adopt any religion as State Religion.”

However, the fact that the phrase “secular state” is not used anywhere in the same Constitution obfuscates the position that Nigeria is a secular state. As a matter of fact, there is no reported Nigerian case so far where section 10 of the Constitution (“the secular section”) has been given judicial interpretation. Some believe that the constitution might not have stated outrightly Nigeria’s religious nomenclature, but the idea of secularism was implied.

As Mubarak Bidmos, a researcher in biological anthropology postulated, the notion of thinking that any religion would bow for the other is the faultiest thought anyone would conceive. Religious tolerance plays important role in nation building. It is important in engendering and sustaining peace, equality and growth in a country.

It is also notable that religion is oftentimes used an organised political agenda by those who enjoy seeing Nigerians take up arms against one another.

Seeing Christian and Muslim faithful clash over an issue that can be amicably resolved if both sides show understanding and mutual tolerance leads to serious apprehension.

The two sides can meet themselves halfway. If the 10 schools were built and funded by private owners, no one should interfere in their code of dressing. If they are getting funds from government, then every contributor should have a say on key issues in the management of the institutions. Even if it was a pure mission school that allows other adherents to register their wards, issues can be settled when parents, teachers, and administrators meet. It is always a give and take approach. For it to degenerate into a state conflict is an aberration.

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Even so, government should have maintained the unbiased position it took at the outset. The responsibility of every government at both national and state levels lies in their ability to ensure unity, friendliness, and tolerance among the various religions and ethnicities, in tandem with the constitution. This should happen before this issue consumes the state and spread across the overarching polity, which is a scary possibility.

Nelson Okoh

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